Unbound consciousness seeping through
It was a sure delight to read Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, published in 1915, when she was 33. She had spent two years, from 1910-1912 writing it, and then heavily revised it. By all accounts, some of the themes which had been more fully explored in the first submitted version, had been scaled back, in order to achieve publications. These themes – homosexuality, women’s suffrage and attitudes to colonialism are still within the book.
The outward narrative drive follows Rachel Vinrace, the 24 year old daughter of a business man and ship owner. Rachel’s mother died when she was young, and she has been brought up by her aunts. Her upbringing has been educationally lacking, in that no-one directed or disciplined her learning. Here is of course a theme that Virginia was passionate about – the education of women. Rachel is intelligent, highly musical, but knows little about life. Although she has had the freedom to develop her intellect, read where her interest listed, the lack of focus and encouragement to persist where she found something difficult, has been a hindrance. She is socially unsophisticated, and particularly ignorant about the relationships between men and women. Crucially, she has not learned how to play the game demanded of women of her class and time, in a man’s world:
those habits of unselfishness and amiability founded upon insincerity which are put at so high a value in mixed households of men and women
Rachel ‘Voyages Out’ on her father’s ship, in the company of older, more worldly people. Helen and Ridley Ambrose, related through marriage to Rachel’s father, are free-thinking artistic people. Richard Dalloway and his wife Clarissa represent the world of social reform and politics. Mrs Dalloway, of course, is further explored in a later novel where she is central. Here, she too provides a focus for Rachel, as she makes a journey discovering who she is, who and what influences and steers her, towards her route from becoming to being. Rachel is of course making this journey quite late; it is a journey which usually starts earlier, in the teens. Rachel, like Virginia herself, has in some ways been retarded in development , and in others has had a kind of unconfinement which allowed growth.
The novel has exotic and powerful settings, firstly the dreamy, limitless horizons of the ocean, coupled with the confinement of being within a ship upon that ocean, and secondly, a South American setting, country unnamed, where Rachel and the Ambroses are holidaying. A nearby hotel will bring a whole pack of people from middle and upper middle class society into Rachel’s life.
Though this novel is certainly more conventional in narrative structure than some of her later books, what I can only think of as a fluidity of consciousness, a kind of watery dissemination and flowingness from one point of view to another, is already evident. In fact, it is not immediately clear, in the on board ship section, whose story we are following Rachel’s, Helen’s or Clarissa’s. In fact, where Woolf is taking us is ‘life itself’. This excerpt from Clarissa Dalloway’s thoughts, illustrates some kind of place where thought and feeling forms blend, in an oceanic way and identities shift and blur.
She then fell into a sleep….visited by fantastic dreams of great Greek letters stalking round the room…she woke up and laughed to herself, remembering where she was and that the Greek letters were real people, lying asleep not many yards away….The dreams were not confined to her indeed, but went from one brain to another. They all dreamt of each other that night, as was natural, considering how thin the partitions were between them, and how strangely they had been lifted off the earth to sit next each other in mid-ocean, and see every detail of each others’ faces, and hear whatever they chanced to say
The South American hotel also brings other characters whose visions and aspirations add further possibilities to female experiences. Susan Warrington is a rather put-upon companion to an elderly aunt. Marriage would be the only escape. Evelyn Murgatroyd is a woman who chafes at the curtailed opportunities offered to her gender and class. She yearns to be an active, revolutionary hero. There are women of an older generation, some in the shadows of their husbands, some freed in widowhood to explore being selfish and unamiable.
The male world features academics and intellectuals quite heavily, which was of course Woolf’s own background.
Two young academic men also have major focus within the novel. John Hirst (reputedly this character is based on Lytton Strachey) is highly intellectual. He forms a strong relationship with Helen (based on Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell). Helen is a ‘safe’ wise, strong, beautiful married woman, and she is the only woman whom Hirst can really relate to, freely talk to. His friend is Terence Hewet, a man altogether more at ease with women. Hewet has never been in love, but he has had physical relationships with women.
Caught in the hot-house of succulence and danger within the exotic South American landscape and under the amused, watchful or jaded eyes of those who are either already married or have moved beyond such considerations, those who are unmarried explore the relationships between men and women and the differences between the sexes. Woolf’s swings between raptures and despairs, the high glories of livingness, the potency of the natural world, and the pain and suffering of life, are also engaged with.
He had never realised before that underneath every action, underneath the life of every day, pain lies, quiescent, but ready to devour; he seemed to be able to see suffering, as if it were a fire, curling up over the edges of all action, eating away the lives of men an women. He thought for the first time with understanding of words which had before seemed to him empty: the struggle of life; the hardness of life
I have carefully avoided spoilers. Which is more than the second hand Penguin Modern Classics version which I picked up did. Reading the blurb on the back gave me all the details of what Rachel’s story would be about.
A major gripe – why do those who write forewords or, even worse, write the jacket information for classics, arrogantly assume everyone has already read something and major plot arcs can be spelt out. Someone is always coming to a book for the first time, and those people should be able to experience a book as the author intended. I couldn’t ‘un-know’ what the blurb writer had spoiled, and this made the book a more difficult read, as events Woolf meant her reader to be shocked by could not have their full effect. I sometimes wonder whether blurb writers hate reading, or hate the books they write the jackets for, when I find that major parts of the reader’s journey have been described with full details. Of course a book is about much more than story, but story, the ‘what happens next’ is a major strand
I do think this is a wonderful first novel, and particularly interesting in the light of my recent re-read of To The Lighthouse, as themes and styles more fully realised in that later novel are developing here.
I’m of course very grateful to HeavenAli, whose Woolfalong Challenge for this year is bringing me to Woolfs new to me and Woolfs to reacquaint myself with, and this voyage out in the good ship Woolf is most satisfying. This should have been read and reviewed for the March/April beginnings and endings strand, but, Hey-Ho, life, not to mention other reads, intervened.